President Trump wants to get rid of “chain migration.”
My paternal grandfather sure was glad that “chain migration” was in place in the 1920s. So am I.
“Chain migration” allows close family members of previous immigrants to come into the United States. Trump and right-wing Republicans want to replace that family-oriented emphasis with a “merit” emphasis on job skills and desirable attributes rather than family relationships.
Grandpa Joe Bonavita immigrated into the United States sometime after World War I ended, as I remember the story. I don’t have documents, so the precise year is hazy.
His brother Tom had immigrated earlier. Tom worked driving spikes through railroad tracks and into wooden crossties as the Pennsylvania Railroad snaked northwest from Renovo toward Warren and Erie. In Warren, Tom found a job at the Struthers-Wells steel fabricating plant, sent for his family, and settled down.
Grandpa Joe immigrated, then found brutal work in underground coal mines in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. The story goes that his wife died, leaving him with two daughters, and he sent back to the “Old Country” (Italy) for a new wife. His relatives sent him Philomena Fico, whom he dimly remembered as a younger girl in his town of Petilia Policastro, province of Crotone, region of Calabria.
They were happily married for a half-century or so, as far as I could tell when, as a pre-teen, I practically lived with them and their son Frank (“Flat”) in the house they shared that was located across the street from Struthers-Wells, banging forging hammers, squealing cranes and all.
In the 1920s, disaster struck.
Grandpa was slammed against the mine wall by a chain of breakaway handcars loaded with coal. The steel push handle sticking out from the side of the car ripped through his back, breaking his spine and severing muscles.
It was two or three days before he saw a doctor.
When his back healed, he could no longer stand upright. He was bent over at the waist at a 90-degree angle, though he could prop himself upright by leaning on a chair, a sofa arm or his wife. I have a photo of Grandpa proudly standing upright while short, stout Grandma leans into him to disguise his handicap.
No Social Security. No disability. No pension. Nothing.
And mouths to feed. Probably five or six children by that time. Starvation loomed.
“Come to Warren,” said Tom, his brother.
Tom got Grandpa a job as a janitor at Struthers-Wells. This next statement is horribly politically incorrect, but it is accurate: Grandpa was ideally suited to the job, because he was already bent over and could push the broom neatly, sweeping up the curly shavings from the chipped-out steel along with the dust from coal and dirt.
For the rest of his life, Grandpa was grateful to Struthers-Wells for having given him the job. When Dad and his brothers, still at home in their 20s during the Depression of the 1930s, partied heavily and moaned against getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m., the story goes that Grandpa would turn their mattresses over, dumping them on the floor.
The steel plant “gave me a job when we were starving,” he would say. “You will not disgrace our name by not showing up for work!” I am told that Grandpa would reluctantly accept inpatient hospitalization status as an excuse, but not much less.
If it had not been for Uncle Tom, for the “chain migration” of that day, I and other grandchildren probably would not have been born.
I don’t think that close relatives should get automatic admission. Actually, right now, they do not. Convicted criminals and other undesirables are regularly denied, though the porous border and lax enforcement allow some in those categories to enter.
I do see the desirability of the mutual support framework that “chain migration” allows.
In instances where there are quotas from specific countries, I don’t have a problem with giving preference to immigrants with clearly desirable job skills – but that is “preference,” not “requirement.”
On my family tree’s other branch is the story that my maternal grandfather was a stowaway on a freighter, an illegal immigrant freeing a death warrant issued by the Mafia of that time, Again, I have no documentation, but I heard the story over and over. That makes it difficult for me to be hard-nosed against all illegal immigrants.
So what should we do about “chain migration”?
Keep it as a policy, in my view.
Modify it? Sure. Stress the desirability of immigrants to the United States economy? Yep.
But family ties are powerful ties. Immigrants of this and previous generations coalesced around families, then around common-country communities, then gradually flowed out into the mainstream.
So let’s not get rid entirely of “chain migration.” It has served us well.
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org